Viewpoint by John Newsinger*
This is the second of a six-part article originally published in International Socialism under the title The Christian right, the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Click here for part one of the series. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News.
LONDON (IDN) – And this was just one campaign. The American Legion, the veterans’ organisation which in 1952 claimed more than 2.7 million members, launched its own “Back to God” campaign, helping equip the country to combat the threat of atheistic communism.
As Angela Lahr points out, “billboards, prayer cards, radio and television scripts, editorials, films and postcards all carried the theme”. One typical billboard read: “America’s First Line of Defence – God and His Church – Attend every Sunday”.
Another part of the revival was the establishment in January 1952 of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship by the evangelical preacher and faith healer Oral Roberts and the businessman Demos Shakarian, promoting the “prosperity gospel” and bringing together thousands of small businessmen. It proved “to be an extraordinarily effective tool for spreading the Pentecostal message to the American middle class”, indeed, according to Roberts’s biographer, it was “one of the most powerful parachurch organisations in modern history”.
By the early 1970s the Fellowship claimed 300,000 members. And Hollywood was not to be left out. Cecil DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster, The Ten Commandments, was very much part of the propaganda offensive. The film, he told the Washington Post, was all about whether people “are to be free souls under God or whether they belong to the state”. As Andrew Preston puts it: “The signs of religion were absolutely everywhere in Cold War America.”
“One Nation Under God”
The Christian propaganda offensive continued, indeed intensified when Dwight Eisenhower became President. Eisenhower was at best a “nominal Christian who had never bothered joining a church”. Indeed, in his best-selling memoir, Crusade in Europe, published in 1948, he did not so much as mention “religion, God’s role in the affairs of the world, prayers, morality”.
Once he determined on a run at the presidency though, he recognised that this had to change, both in order to ensure his nomination and election but also so that he could play his full part in the Christian offensive that was being waged on the American home front. Eisenhower turned to the popular evangelical preacher Billy Graham for spiritual advice.
According to Graham, Eisenhower piously told him that he was running for president because the American people had got to “get back to biblical Christianity and I must lead them”. Once he had been elected, shortly before his inauguration, Eisenhower told the press that the Cold War was a “war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery, godliness against atheism”.
Interestingly, he had never thought such sentiments and language necessary in the Hot War against Nazi Germany. At his actual inauguration on 20 January 1953, he became the first president to lead the estimated 125,000 spectators in prayer and only days later became the first president to be baptised in office, joining the National Presbyterian Church. His baptism was very much “a political act” informed by Eisenhower’s belief that “his duty as president required membership and regular attendance at church to set a religious example and moral tone for the nation”.
He presided at the first annual National Prayer Breakfast, a big public event “attended by senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officers, ambassadors, military commanders, business and labour leaders, and foreign dignitaries” in February and began the custom of beginning cabinet meetings with a prayer. All this received the maximum publicity. And this was only the beginning.
In 1954, the words “In God We Trust” were added to postage stamps, the following year to paper money and, in 1956, “it became the nation’s first official motto”. Eisenhower also gave his support to a campaign to incorporate a mention of God into the Pledge of Allegiance. Congress rushed to add the words “One Nation Under God” to the Pledge and Eisenhower signed the bill into law on 14 June 1954.
Two last points about the post-war religious revival: first, the strongholds of Protestant evangelicanism in the South and Midwest were great beneficiaries of the permanent arms economy. As Axel Schaffer puts it, arms expenditure “turned the Sunbelt into a gun belt. In places such as … San Diego at least 20 percent of manufacturing employment came from the military”.
He goes on: “Evangelicals thus benefited from the socioeconomic and socio-demographic developments spawned by the largesse of the Cold War” which “engineered the upward mobility, suburbanisation and numerical increase of conservative Protestants”. Indeed, by the 1960s, “evangelicals were no longer more rural, older, poorer or less educated than the average American”.
Second, the enthusiastic rallying to the cause of American capitalism with all its celebration of big business and of the rich inevitably had an impact on the churches themselves. They increasingly became businesses, sanctifying greed and unashamedly enriching their pastors, so that by the 1990s there were in the U.S. “dozens of fundamentalist and charismatic … multimillionaires” who were, not surprisingly, “ardent supporters of tax cuts and reduced economic regulation”.
Across the South and the Midwest, preachers became rich, often obscenely rich, through the ruthless exploitation of their congregations and followers, combining all the methods of modern marketing with good old-fashioned superstition, preaching the prosperity gospel to an evangelical suburban middle class.
One of the key figures in the religious revival of the 1950s and beyond was the evangelical preacher Billy Graham. He first came to national prominence during his Los Angeles crusade in September and October 1949. The event was sponsored by local businessmen, most notably Clifford Smith of Hollywood Togs, a sportswear company.
What changed it from just another local evangelical event of no great moment was the decision of William Randolph Hearst to throw his newspaper empire behind Graham, in effect to turn him into a national celebrity. He was, in the words of one historian, “Hearst’s last gift to the American people”. And where Hearst led the way other newspapers followed. Most important was the support given to him by Henry Luce, whose media empire included Time magazine.
The context was also important because it had just been announced that the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and Graham made much of the threat this posed, something that was duly amplified by the media. He warned his audience night after night that there were more “fifth columnists…Communists” in Los Angeles than in any other American city and that Los Angeles was the third target on the Soviet list for nuclear destruction after New York and Chicago.
“God”, he preached, “is giving us a desperate choice, a choice of either revival or judgement. There is no alternative! If Sodom and Gomorrah could not get away with sin … neither can Los Angeles. Judgement is coming.” The only reason the United States had escaped the devastation visited upon other countries during the Second World War “was because Gods people prayed”. The crusade had to be extended and when it ended 350,000 people had heard Graham preach.
By the time of his New York crusade that lasted from May through to September 1957, Graham’s business sponsors were not local businessmen but the likes of Henry Luce, Roger Hull, the president of Mutual Life, Howard Isham, president of U.S. Steel, and others. They financed a massive campaign with 650 billboards, 40,000 bumper stickers and half a million leaflets advertising the crusade. By the time the crusade ended, Graham had preached 97 times to a total audience of over three million people.
He preached a pro-business, anti-communist message across the country and abroad. Graham had no time for trade unions, which he condemned as selfish and sinful. In 1952, he told one enthusiastic audience that in the Garden of Eden there were “no union dues, no labour leaders, no snakes, no disease”. As far as he was concerned American workers should be grateful to live in “the land of free enterprise, business and industry”. Indeed, instead of joining a union they should show themselves to be “a faithful and efficient worker, even if it is screwing a nut on one bolt after another”.
Graham supported the Vietnam War. He visited the country to preach to the troops at Christmas 1966 and Christmas 1968, coming back after the later visit to tell Johnson that “no question: the war is won militarily”.
Graham’s response to U.S. atrocities was to do his best to minimise, indeed, trivialise them. After the news of the My Lai massacre belatedly broke, he wrote in the New York Times: “We have all had our My Lais in one way or another, perhaps not with guns, but we have hurt others with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act or a selfish deed … let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. He dismissed anti-war protests, protests in which many Christians from all denominations were actively involved, as evidence of “a satanic spiritual power of evil that is stirring up all hatred and dissent in this country”.
On one occasion, after protesters threw eggs at Nixon, Graham called for “tough new laws to deal with these incidents”. And after Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State University (four students killed) and Jackson State College (two students killed), he came to Nixon’s assistance, inviting him to share the platform at his University of Tennessee crusade in Knoxville.
In front of an overwhelmingly pro-Nixon, pro-war 88,000 strong audience (there were scattered chants of “Bullshit!” and 47 protesters were arrested), Graham preached that “the Bible teaches us to obey authority”. The following year, when Charlotte in North Carolina held a “Billy Graham Day”, Nixon shared Graham’s car as it drove through the streets lined by cheering crowds and spoke alongside Graham at the later rally.
Graham’s commitment to Nixon was total. He wrote to Nixon in 1971, telling him that, “my expectations were high when you took office, but you have exceeded in every way”. You have given “moral and spiritual leadership to the nation at a time when we desperately needed it”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 February 2020]
* John Newsinger is a member of Brighton Socialist Workers Party (SWP). His most recent book is Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left (Pluto, 2018).
Photo: Evangelical preacher Billy Graham, one of the key figures in the religious revival of the 1950s and beyond. Credit: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
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